May 17 update on COVID-19 in MN: Confirmed cases climb past 15,000

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Nurse Amanda Hitchings uses a swab to take a sample for COVID-19 testing at a curbside collection facility on May 6 at St. Cloud Hospital.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times

Updated: 8:50 p.m. | Posted: 7:48 a.m.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota climbed past 15,000 on Sunday, with 22 more deaths reported in the state.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 699 new confirmed cases, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 15,668.

The death toll now stands at 722. State health officials said 19 of the 22 deaths reported on Sunday were people living in long-term care facilities, which continue to see most of the COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota.

The number of completed tests reported Sunday — 7,324 — was down from the previous day, but still well above the 5,000-test goal set by state officials. They say at least 5,000 tests a day are needed to move ahead with reopening the economy.

The numbers of COVID-19 patients hospitalized dropped slightly Sunday to 487, down from 493 on Saturday. The number of people being treated in ICUs also dropped slightly to 221, down from 225 the previous day.

About two-thirds of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Minnesota have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

State officials continue to implore Minnesotans to regulate their behavior as they gather in small groups and head back to stores. Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order expires Monday.

“Enjoy the weather,” but stay 6 feet apart, wear a cloth mask outside and don’t gather in groups larger than 10, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Friday.

Minnesota health leaders are hoping residents don’t follow Wisconsin’s lead as restrictions start to loosen. Citizens there almost immediately began packing bars and restaurants unmasked after the governor’s stay-at-home order was overturned on Wednesday.

“There absolutely is a need for vigilance. This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday.

In Minnesota starting Monday, retail businesses will be allowed to reopen with limited capacity and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again.

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a "limited and safe" reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines.

When they do come back, those establishments are likely to face capacity limits. Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

On Friday, Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities would also continue on after Monday.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Sunday, there were 1,361 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopened with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Sunday, confirmed cases were at 1,713 with 10 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump three weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then.

On Sunday, the Health Department reported 412 people have now tested positive.


Developments from around the state

Mall of America seeking state COVID-19 relief

The Mall of America is seeking financial help from the state as it tries to bounce back from its coronavirus closure.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday that mall officials are seeking legislative approval to tap into a tax increment financing account to get through the current crisis. But he noted that the city of Bloomington and local legislators are opposed.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he is willing to listen.“All our businesses we need to figure out. But when you have one that has that big of draw, both nationally and internationally, there’s an impact that it has tax-wise, not just for the city of Bloomington but for the state. So, we are talking about it. It is one of the issues that came up.”

Rep. Mike Howard, DFL- Richfield said on Twitter that the state should not be bailing out the wealthy owners of the mall while thousands of small businesses are struggling to pay rent or mortgages.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Minnesota courts preparing to reopen

Minnesota courts are beginning the gradual process of resuming in-person hearings, as judges and court employees may return to their offices starting Monday.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea has ordered a preparedness plan to be implemented before more face-to-face proceedings may take place.

Her plan includes social distancing, wearing masks, and the daily cleaning of courtrooms and offices.

Starting June 1, a limited number of criminal jury trials may resume. But civil jury trials will not be held until September.

Meanwhile, anyone going in to a federal courthouse in Minnesota must wear a face mask starting Monday. However many proceedings are still being conducted by phone and video link.

Federal criminal jury trials are postponed until July 5, as are other proceedings such as sentencing hearings where defendants do not consent to videoconferencing.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News


Top headlines

More Minnesota restaurants announce permanent closures: While restaurants across Minnesota await the chance to resume some dine-in operations, a growing list of restaurants in the state say they won't reopen, even after COVID-19 business restrictions are lifted.

Rap video challenge enlists youth to fight pandemic apathy: More than a dozen teenagers are competing in the COVID-19 rap challenge. The contest urges youth of color to rap about their pandemic experiences and use their voice to curb the spread of the virus in the black community.

Health official says Rochester house party spawned cluster of COVID-19 cases: Through testing and contact tracing, health officials believe that a single person at the party spread the virus to multiple other individuals, who further spread the virus in the community, said Graham Briggs, Olmsted County public health director.

Major effect of quarantine is delaying COVID-19 peak, not preventing it: A scenario that mirrors Walz’s Wednesday announcement projects that by the end of May, an estimated 1,441 people will have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota. By next March, that model predicts that just over 29,000 people will have died from the disease in the state.


COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

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